The adjective of earl is ‘comital’ and a comital coronet bears eight strawberry leaves and eight pearls around the rim.
The title of earl itself is unique to the British Isles as its continental equivalent is ‘count’ (from which the female title, countess, is derived). It is, however, similar to the Scandinavian ‘jarl’, which means ‘chieftain’, and both may have originated from the name of the ‘erilaz’ Nordic tribe.
By the time of the Norman conquest, earls’ large domains such as the earldom of Wessex shrank in size to the governance of shires, or counties. They remained powerful noblemen for hundreds of years, however, and were considered to rank socially just below the king and princes – meaning very few were created. This power was first demonstrated in 1327 when English earls successfully deposed Edward II in favour of his son, Edward III.
In today’s peerage, earls rank above barons and viscounts but below marquesses and dukes. Perhaps the most famous earl is Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who as prime minister oversaw the passing of the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, and also had a bergamot-scented tea named after him.
Earldoms are the titles traditionally bestowed upon retired prime ministers and the last to be granted this honour was Harold Macmillan, as 1st Earl of Stockton, on the advice of then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Likewise, Sir Anthony Eden before him was made 1st Earl of Avon in 1961 and Clement Attlee 1st Earl Attlee in 1955. While the earldom of Avon became extinct upon the death of the 2nd Earl, Nicholas Eden, in 1985, Attlee’s grandson John sits in the House of Lords as the 3rd Earl while Stockton’s grandson, the 2nd Earl, is a councillor on South Bucks district council.
Although members of the Royal Family are traditionally titled dukes, Prince Edward chose to become Earl of Wessex in 1999 for historical reasons. The former kings of Wessex were instrumental in the foundation of the Kingdom of England and the last holder of the title before Prince Edward was Harold Godƿinson – who became Harold II of England in 1066.
There are presently 191 earldoms in the peerages of the United Kingdom and Ireland; 20 in the Peerage of England, 39 in the Peerage of Scotland, 24 in the Peerage of Great Britain, 39 in the Peerage of Ireland and 69 in the Peerage of the United Kingdom.